Physician Age Linked to Clinically Significant Patient Mortality Risk

Posted May 18, 2017

According a study published recently by the British Medical Journal, patients of older physicians have a higher mortality rate of 1.3 percent when compared to their youngest counterparts.

However, the new study took the severity of the patient's condition into account, and still found a higher chance of death with doctors aged 60 or above.

Harvard researchers looked over data on more than 700,000 hospital admissions of elderly patients cared for by almost 19,000 physicians between 2011 and 2014.

Among patients treated by hospital physicians under the age of 40, 10.8% died; for doctors aged 40 to 49, the figure was 11.1%; for doctors aged 50 to 59, it was 11.3%; and for doctors aged 60 or more, 12.1%.

To test whether physicians with high volumes of patients might better maintain clinical knowledge and skills, the team also analysed whether the association between physician age and patient mortality was altered by the number of patients each doctor treated. He reiterated the fact that older doctors who treated high volumes of patients didn't have a higher patient mortality rates.

This suggests that treating large numbers of patients could be "protective" of clinical skills.

Researchers did find, however, that patient death rates slowly increased as doctors aged.

The first is that as physicians age and accumulate experience, their outcomes can improve because they see more and more patients and they have a better idea of how to diagnose and treat disease. The average age of the physicians was 41.

Doctors were assigned patients based on work schedules and case specifics, with assignment protocols deemed comparable across all physician ages. All the patients were aged 65 or older and on Medicare.

"One thing I want to emphasize is that we don't think as doctors get old that their quality gets worse". "The results of our study suggest the critical importance of continuing medical education throughout a doctor's entire career, regardless of age and experience".

They also found the cost of care increased slightly with physician age, but determined it was not statistically significant. "Therefore, they may be more up-to-date when they start providing care".

Researchers do, however, suggest that findings should not deter people from seeing old physicians.

Harvard Medical School has more than 11,000 faculty working in 10 academic departments located at the School's Boston campus or in hospital-based clinical departments at 15 Harvard-affiliated teaching hospitals and research institutes: Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Boston Children's Hospital, Brigham and Women's Hospital, Cambridge Health Alliance, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Institute, Hebrew SeniorLife, Joslin Diabetes Center, Judge Baker Children's Center, Massachusetts Eye and Ear/Schepens Eye Research Institute, Massachusetts General Hospital, McLean Hospital, Mount Auburn Hospital, Spaulding Rehabilitation Network and VA Boston Healthcare System.